Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Dreaded Synopsis

The past week or so, I have been struggling with the bane of my literary existence: the synopsis. Over the years, I have talked to hundreds of people in the publishing industry and I've reached two conclusions regarding those 5-page pests: all writers hate them and most agents require them.

For those of you who haven't had the anguish of being asked to boil down your 90K word novel into five measly pages, consider yourselves lucky. The rest of us have had to struggle and wrestle and feel the pressure because not only are synopses hard to write, they can make or break a submission packet. The agent or editor may enjoy the first three chapters you sent, but if they're not drawn to the summary of the entire book, they're not going to ask for the full manuscript. These five pages, the ones that no author I know claims to be good at writing, can determine whether or not your manuscript gets read.

You're probably thinking this would be the place where I give you the secret recipe for creating a kick-ass, fail-proof synopsis, but unfortunately, I don't know the secret. I've written two, neither of which landed me a book contract. So I'm turning to the experts. I've researched blogs, articles, forums and have formulated a lists of dos and don'ts for writing synopses:


  • Make it compelling. If you're synopsis isn't gripping why would your book be?
  • Include ending and illustrate a clear narrative arc. Agents and editors want to make sure you can tell a full story without it falling apart at the end.
  • Pinpoint key story elements and elaborate on those, skipping over minor characters and plot points.
  • Illustrate your protagonist's goal, motivation, and conflict. Without those three things, there is no story.
  • Write in present tense, no matter what verb tense your novel is written in.
  • Practice. Like any other craft, you're not going to nail it on the first try. A good exercise is writing a synopsis for a common book or movie.


  • Include cliffhangers or teasers. Give it all away!
  • Include every detail of the book. If you do, you're synopsis will be a hundred pages long.
  • Lose your voice. Let the writing style of the manuscript come through in the synopsis.
  • Write it like a report. It should read more like a short story than a list of plot points.

These are pretty simple tips, and in theory, writing a synopsis is pretty simple. It's the art of creating a gripping, flawless, impossible-to-put-down, synopsis which is tricky. Want to hear it from the horse's mouth? Ask the experts:

Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent

Miss Snark - Anonymous Literary Agent

Jessica Faust - Literary Agent

Gordon Carroll (author) via his agent - Part 1

Gordon Carroll (author) via his agent - Part 2

Friday, February 06, 2009

Love is Murder panel

This afternoon I'm heading over to Love is Murder. It's one of my favorite conferences and I believe you can register at the door. Stop by Saturday at 10:00am for my panel, What NOT To Do: Editors and Reviewers Dish. Hope to see you there!

Carne Asada vs. Filet Mignon

Maybe I've been watching too much Top Chef lately, but I've come to see how books are a lot like restaurant dining. There's the greasy, no frills Mexican joint that has abuela cooking in the kitchen, and while the food tastes incredible, there isn't much art to it. Then there's the five-star restaurants with the 12-course tasting menus, where every single bite is carefully crafted and thought out and every flavor complements the others perfectly. I'm a huge fan of the Mexican place. I never tire of good food no matter what the presentation is like. But if I want to be impressed, if I want to be wowed, I'm going to the five-star restaurant.

Like Mexican restaurants, there are plenty of "good tasting" books out there. These are the books you enjoy reading, they're suspenseful and intriguing, but there's nothing really new or impressive about them. The five-star restaurant books aren't as common. These are the books in which each sentence is intended, each chapter is carefully crafted, each plot point leads somewhere and each character serves a distinct purpose. You don't remember the name of the taqueria with the great tortas, but you never forget the name of the restaurant where you had a 4-hour dining experience. Same goes for books.

Good news is, unlike owning a five-star restaurant, I believe any writer can produce a beautifully crafted, well written, memorable novel. Like any good chef, it's about honing your craft. Here are a couple of tips:
  • Read. Learn from the masters. Which books do you remember reading that are incredibly written and well crafted? Go back to those books, and this time, read them for the writing.
  • Practice. Write every day, no matter what. You don't become a good writer by sitting around and thinking about writing. If you're still in the brainstorming phases of a book, write out character sketches, scenes from a character's childhood, a description of the setting. Words are free and paper is cheap.
  • Craft. Everyone's writing process is different. Some have to think about a scene before writing it, other's write their way into it. Whatever your style, it's important to craft your prose. You may do it as you write or revise afterwards. Every chapter, ever scene, every paragraph, in your book should serve a purpose. Every character and every object should do the same. Every scene should push the story forward. Go through your manuscript and eliminate the ones that don't.
  • See The Big Picture. This is something that many writers find difficult. It's easy to look at a scene or look at a chapter and see what's lacking. It's harder to look at the book as a whole. But it's necessary. If you plot beforehand, this will be easier, as you already know where the story is going. If you plot as you go, you may have to wait until your manuscript is finished to really see the big picture. Once you see the overall structure of the book, it will be easier to strengthen the scenes within.

As a reader and reviewer, I'm looking for the five-star restaurants. While the taquerias taste great, when you eat at a lot of them, they all begin to blur. I read a lot, and memories of the books that were simply enjoyable start to face. It's the well-crafted, five-star books that are burned in my memory. Those are the ones I'm looking for.